St Andrews has some new faces this semester, and I don’t mean the hundreds of new students out and about in town. Lining the few streets of St Andrews are new shops and cafes which stand out, looking fresh and stylish in our small, old town. However, a few years ago the bustling streets looked different, when COVID-19 meant many shops were forced to close, and buying, say, a new pair of crocs, was sadly deemed as non-essential. We are still emerging from the pandemic, with this year being the first ‘normal’ year for many students, particularly with in-person teaching back and Zoom now seeming as dated as Houseparty. Masks are no longer compulsory in shops, which means no more last-minute stress grabbing a month-old mask from a random pocket before you leave home. Instead of staring endlessly at a screen to order vital (and not so vital) things, now is the perfect time to physically go and explore some new stores.
Black Sheep on Market Street is a sustainable coffee shop, with a mantra to ‘leave the herd behind’. It is currently only one of five in Scotland, although several new stores are set to open in Edinburgh. Its call for sustainability stems from its refusal to use single-use plastic. Instead, Black Sheep opts for materials that biodegrade in much quicker time periods. Maybe it could be a real competitor to Starbucks and Pret, controversial as it may seem, but perhaps any comments on opinions on their coffee would settle this dispute.
Further along Market Street is an exciting new shop called The Nutcracker. Unmistakable with its human-size nutcrackers standing guard outsides its doors, and fairy lights happily blaring from its windows, it is a full-on Christmas shop, spreading festive joy on cold, rainy fall days. Inside is a whole range of decorations of colour-coordinated reindeer, angels, and festive gnomes, with an entire shelf dedicated to Scotland baubles. Although many have questioned how a Christmas shop manages to survive an entire year, the shop is often busy with customers who realise that Christmas can acceptably begin as soon as summer is over. The Nutcracker adds to gift shops such as Bonkers and Jewel that provide a perfect alternative to buying presents online.
Also new on the scene is the takeaway that took over from where Dervish used to be. Big Boss on Bell Street offers an array of food like burgers, pizza, wraps, and chips for those post-midnight nibbles, with an accompanying sick soundtrack in store. And there is yet more for the foodies: Newport Bakery is the cutest little bakery on South Street. A local business originating in Fife, they specialise in sourdough bread and Danish pastries. With a delectable Instagram page, friendly staff, and s’mores croissants, it makes mornings look a little brighter.
It is particularly refreshing to see thriving and surviving local shops after a few years of online shopping. Months of sales were lost during the UK’s lockdowns, with the first lockdown in March 2020, and several others throughout the next year. Over this period, over 17,500 chain stores were closed in Britain and many never reopened. We should never again take for granted the simple ability to pop into a shop. It seems impossible to fathom now how students coped without Starbucks.
Retail is an important part of the UK GDP, contributing over 5% each year, but it also impacted communities on a more local scale. St Andrews was affected tremendously – fewer tourists and more online students meant that there was a reduced level of foot traffic than what would usually be found on the occasional sunny day. Instead, since March 2020, Fife saw a 45.6 % increase in online sales. In that weird year it was the norm, even more so than usual, to buy many things online, including food, clothes, and gifts. All of this diverted money away from the high street economy. So, if you ever feel guilty for spending a few quid on a pain au chocolat or a random Christmas decoration, feel comfort in the thought that you have contributed to keeping shops on the high street open.